PASCO — If Saul Martinez succeeds in getting elected to the Pasco City Council in the November general election, he would be the first Hispanic to win a Pasco council election.
After serving two terms on the Pasco School Board, Martinez has name recognition among voters. His community involvement also was instrumental in the city council appointing him last year to fill a vacant position on the council.
And considering that 56 percent of Pasco’s population identified themselves as Hispanic in the recently released 2010 U.S. Census, it would seem Martinez could attract enough voters to be elected.
But the track record doesn’t suggest he will have an easy election.
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The nine Latino candidates who have run for Pasco City Council in 15 races since 1989 all lost to non-Latino candidates, according to a 2008 study by Whitman student Tim Shadix.
And an unofficial Herald census of 160 elected officials in Benton and Franklin counties that includes nine different types of elected boards, found that only six officials who represent ethnic and racial minorities. Gender diversity was a little broader, but women still represented only 23 percent of the officials.
Of the six, three are Hispanic, one Asian, one black and one is multiracial Japanese and black. Three are city council members, two are school board members and one is a judge.
That’s in a bicounty community where 29 percent of the 253,340 residents counted in the census were Hispanic, 3 percent multiracial, about 1.5 percent black and about 2 percent Asian.
The most ethnically-diverse Tri-City elected board is the Pasco School Board, where two of its five members represent ethnic minorities.
But most city councils, school boards, irrigation districts, ports, public utility and public hospital districts, Superior and District Court judges, county-level officials and state legislators are a sea of white.
In Benton County, non-Hispanic whites make up 98 percent of all the elected officials. Only two of the 96 Benton County elected officials represent racial or ethnic minorities.
Franklin County has three out of 49 elected officials who represent racial or ethnic minorities. Non-Hispanic whites make up 94 percent of the elected officials.
Reasons for the lack of minority elected officials range from low voter turnout by minority communities to a lack of well-known minority candidates. Like many public officials, minority officials often find their way into public office through appointment, as Martinez did to the school board and city council.
Martinez said he thinks it’s important that elected bodies reflect the diversity of the community they represent, and he would like to see more people of diverse backgrounds run for council seats.
For example, the last time a black Pasco resident served on the council was 2007, when Joe Jackson, the city’s first black mayor, lost his re-election bid after more than 20 years on the council.
After being elected twice to the Pasco School Board — both times unopposed — Martinez said he is interested to see what will happen when he runs this year for his current council position.
Some Whitman political science students have examined the under-representation of Latinos in local elected offices as part of the State of the State for Washington Latinos, a grant-funded project started in 2005.
The 10 Washington counties where Latinos made up between 15 percent to 55 percent of the 2008 population all fell short in having Latinos represented among elected officials, according to a 2010 report by Whitman student Zachary Duffy.
Paul Apostolidis, a politics professor at Whitman and the project’s founder, said research has shown that the ethnic and racial makeup of a legislative body can change policy decisions.
For instance, an elected board’s make-up can influence how the government distributes resources and who gets hired, he said.
But Leo Bowman, Benton County commission chairman, who is white, said he likes to think that those who are willing to serve as an elected official serve the community’s best interests.
And Joe Cruz, Pasco Planning Commission chairman, said as a voter he cares most that the candidate will do a good job.
When he ran for city council against Tom Larsen in 2005, Cruz didn’t paint himself as the Hispanic candidate because he felt that would have been exclusionary politics. Instead, he focused on his qualifications and plans. He lost by 53 votes.
Kennewick Councilman Bob Parks said it doesn’t matter who elected representatives are as long as they are upstanding citizens that the public has chosen.
“If they are all white or they are all black, I don’t care as long as they are the people that are elected,” he said.
Parks, who is white, said he feels ethnicity doesn’t influence who’s willing to approach him as an elected official.
But Martinez said he does get contacted by some Hispanics who may not go to another council member. And he’s had people tell him that having a Hispanic on the council gives them hope.
“If I could do it, their kids could do it,” he explained.
Skin color used to be how diversity was measured, said Sandra Kent, a Richland councilwoman who is black and Japanese. But, she said, “The world has moved on.”
Now diversity is measured by more than just race or ethnicity, and by characteristics such as education, experiences and personal interests, said Kent.
And the Richland council has done a good job of making decisions in a way that’s reflective of the whole community that they serve, she said.
Not that all the members agree on issues, Kent said, but they all work to make the best decisions for the community.